Thoughts From The BIG One

Another The BIG One is in the books, and this year’s was as fun as any I’ve attended. The credit for that has to be split between the staff at Laurel Park (terrific as per usual), the staff at The Hotel at Arundel Reserve (great facility and location) and the players, themselves, who made everything as easy as possible for all of the above and for us as well.

There weren’t any fedoras or fascinators on display at The BIG One, nor were there any caps…at least in terms of payoff caps. Given the array of winning longshots, especially on Day 2, it shouldn’t be surprising that the top four finishers picked up more than half of their final scores on a single race.

Winner Tony Martin and runner up Bruce Pratt each had windfalls when Cirque took the Saturday nightcap at Belmont and paid $131.50 to win and $34.20 to place. Paul Kirnos and Howard Welsh moved up to third and fourth, respectively, by nailing Shadow Boxer ($77.00, $22.20) in Sunday’s last race at Laurel.

Slow and steady obviously did not win this race. Should there have been a cap in place? It’s a valid question, and reasonable minds can differ on that one, A better question might be “Could there have been a cap?”

The answer to that one, at least in this case, is “No.”

Whenever an onsite tournament is held, the scoring method in place has to be one that can be supported by the tournament scoring software available from the location’s tote provider. At Laurel (similar to Monmouth, NYRA, et al,), the tournament software available is exclusively live-bankroll, which essentially means that there can’t be a cap if you want fast, automated scoring updates. (If you want to score by hand then, sure, any scoring format is possible.)  The NHC and Horse Player World Series manage to have a cap and still offer pretty fast standings updates thanks to a proprietary scoring program developed by Las Vegas resident Rich Bacillieri. With the razor-thin profit margins of most tournaments, though, (and in the case of The BIG One, a sizable loss margin!) it’s not very feasible to spend thousands of extra dollars to have Bacillieri and his team travel across the county to set up a format that many of the players won’t appreciate anyway. So there’s the rub.

That said, we constantly analyze the format of The BIG One—as this year’s switch-back to a $2.00 win/place system would attest—and we will certainly analyze this and other questions between now and the 2020 event. If you think about it, what makes the majority of you happiest is what makes us happiest. That principle guides us pretty much every single day.


Tony Martin of Lexington, Ky., may have accumulated more than half his scoring in Saturday’s Cirque race, but it’s sure hard to quibble with his “worthiness” as champion when the guy nailed a 29-1 bomb, Saratoga Colonel, that many in his position at the top of the leaderboard would never have considered (even if they, like Martin, really did like the horse). Paul Shurman, a contestant at The BIG One this year, is fond of saying that one of his secrets to tournament success is playing horses that he likes. It’s advice that is both minimalist and profound—and Tony Martin did exactly what Shurman suggests all weekend long. Still, it was pretty gutsy to put all your picks in early in the day, as Martin did on Sunday, and not change a thing. I wonder if Shurman’s ever done that?!


What do Faust Cabernet, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked and Coke Zero have in common? They were the three beverages specially requested by players at this year’s event. Special kudos go out to David Wolff (whose name was listed as “Wolft” on the leaderboard for the first hour or so on Saturday). Wolff clearly knows a great diet soft drink when he tastes one. I live on that stuff…and I have no doubt that the Coke Zero helped sustain him during the ignominy of having his name misspelled. Third-place finisher Paul Kirnos is another who may have been aided by the special beverage option—though in a reverse kind of way. This year, unlike two years ago, Kirnos was “Campari Off”.


Special beverage options aside, I’m always impressed by the graciousness displayed by everyone at The BIG One. This year, there was only one dispute that I’m aware of. Apparently the Sunday shuttle bus to the track was full before John Fisher could climb aboard, so he took an Uber to Laurel instead. When McKay Smith got wind of this, he pulled out his wallet at Laurel and handed Fisher $20 to cover the ride. Fisher refused to take the money. McKay offered again. Fisher refused again. So McKay then ended the “dispute” by taking a step that Fisher couldn’t counter. He put $20 in Fisher’s HorseTourneys account. You just can’t argue with the boss!


I think this year’s renewal of The BIG One set an unofficial record for most friends and family members to attend the event as guests. Spouses, siblings, children…you name it, they were there. This makes us happy. If nothing else, it makes us feel like we’re putting on an event at  which people know they’ll get treated well and to which they can feel good about taking a loved one. Those loved ones typically deserve a lot of credit for putting up with the time and expense involved in us indulging our passion. We’re glad, for example, that Karen Martin was present to share her husband Tony’s success firsthand.


The prizes at The BIG One are big, but one of the nice things about the event is that it sometimes has an intimate quality that makes it feel more like “The Little One.” It’s not just the compact field of 55 or so…it’s the Laurel Park venue, itself. It’s been greatly upgraded and yet, at the same time, it has a homey feel to it. You can sort of have your “run of the track” there in a way you never could at a bigger, more crowded facility.

We mentioned Paul “Campari Off” Kirnos earlier. Paul’s a 43-year-old from Media, Pa., who worked as a hotwalker one summer at Laurel. He hadn’t been having the greatest tournament, but he liked a horse in the last race right there at his old stomping grounds—a 15-1 morning line outsider named Shadow Boxer in a cheap turf sprint. Paul thought there wasn’t much speed in the race and that the horse might be able to clear the field. Then Paul and his brother Jaime — one of those many family guests in attendance — noticed something that made them think that Shadow Boxer was a “good karma” play as well. His jockey was Jorge Ruiz, and Paul and Jaime somehow knew that Ruiz was a native of Argentina.

“My dad is from Argentina. The jockey was from Argentina. The race was at my home track. Everything just seemed fitting,” Paul said. “Jamie and I wound up running down to the rail and started talking with him non-stop in Spanish during the post parade. He seemed like a really nice guy.”

It’s not clear whether Paul and Jaime shouted simple encouragement or precise riding instructions…maybe a combination of both. Whatever they said, it worked. Shadow Boxer went to the lead under Ruiz, then held off not one but two hard-charging closers to win by two nostrils. The win/place payoffs of $77.00 and $22.20 shot Kirnos all the way to third position—good for a $6,750 cash prize, an NHC seat and a Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge entry.

The cash prize and the NHC seat are worth what? About $11,000?

A BCBC entry: $10,000…

Paul Kirnos on the far right with his brother Jaime and jockey Jorge Ruiz right after Shadow Boxer won at 37-1.

…A post-race photo with the jockey who sent you there: Priceless.